Seventh Circuit Criminal Case of the Week: Another Questionable Statement by a Prosecutor

seventh-circuitOn several occasions recently, the Seventh Circuit has been critical of statements made by prosecutors to jurors.  (See, for instance, my posts here, here, and here.)  Another questionable comment by a prosecutor was the subject of this week’s decision in United States v. Myers (No. 07-3658) (Manion, J.).

Myers was tried on arson charges.  During closing arguments, defense counsel highlighted the fact that gasoline was not found by investigators on the floor of the building that Myers allegedly burned down.  In response, the prosecutor stated:

[A]ny speculation on the part of [defense counsel] about why or why there wasn’t gasoline can be easily explained by the fact that there were firefighters that were in there that night trying to extinguish that fire with water.  Water has a tendency to sweep through and remove all sorts of different things that might have been on the ground.  So, ladies and gentlemen, that’s an easy explainable different part of what [defense counsel] was trying to suggest.

On appeal following his conviction, Myers challenged this statement as prosecutorial misconduct. 

In addressing Myers’ argument, the Seventh Circuit noted that the government was free to argue “the mere possibility that water could have cleaned or diluted the surface of the carpet.”  The problem was that “the government did not couch its argument in such hypothetical terms.” 

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Seventh Circuit Criminal Case of the Week: Protracted Prosecution, Contrition, and Age as Sentencing Factors

seventh-circuit3The Seventh Circuit had some interesting commentary on a number of different sentencing factors in United States v. Presbitero (Nos. 07-1129, 07-1610, & 07-1712).  Writing for the court, Judge Williams affirmed Presbitero’s conviction of tax offenses, reinstated a codefendant’s conviction, and remanded for resentencing in order to determine whether Presbitero qualified for a leadership enhancement under the sentencing guidelines.  Judge Williams concluded by addressing the government’s arguments that the district court took impermissible factors into account when it sentenced Presbitero to a below-guidelines sentence.

First, the Seventh Circuit agreed with the government that the expense and stress of protracted litigation could not be considered as a mitigating factor for Presbitero.  Since Presbitero spent almost ten years (!) defending charges brought by the government, it is hard to see how anyone could qualify for a sentence reduction based on the burdens of protracted litigation if he does not.  The court cited concerns about encouraging defendants to overspend on expensive lawyers as a reason not to treat litigation costs as a mitigating factor.  There would also be equitable concerns in giving a sentence benefit to defendants who are able to spend a lot of money on private lawyers.  Still, I wonder if the court has given too little regard to the nonfinancial toll of litigation.  In some cases, as Malcolm Feeley famously observed in a book of the same title, “the process is the punishment.”  Although lawyers may make neat distinctions in their heads between the process by which guilt is determined and the punishment imposed afterwards, many defendants surely experience the process as deeply traumatic and stigmatizing in its own right.  In extreme cases, it may not be inappropriate to reduce the length of the formal sentence in recognition of the fact that the defendant has already suffered a great deal prior to the imposition of the sentence. 

Second, the Seventh Circuit rejected the government’s contention that Presbitero’s “obstinate behavior” should have been considered an aggravating factor. 

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Seventh Circuit Criminal Case of the Week: What If the Defendant Thought He Was Breaking the Wrong Law?

seventh-circuit2When Doli Pulungan attempted to export 100 military-grade riflescopes to Indonesia in 2007, he knew he was breaking the law.  He was just wrong about which law.  His clients told him there was a ban on military exports to Indonesia, but the ban actually expired in 2005.  Instead, Pulungan violated a different law that requires a license in order to export “defense articles.”  Thus, his elaborate ruse of shipping through Saudi Arabia in order to evade the nonexistent Indonesia embargo did him no good.  A jury ultimately convicted him of “willfully” attempting to violate the export license law, and a judge sentenced him to four years’ imprisonment.

But was his violation truly “willful”?  On appeal, the government conceded that “willfully” means “with knowledge that a license is required,” but argued that the evidence established Pulungan had this knowledge.  The government relied chiefly on Pulungan’s dishonesty with business associates about what he intended to do with the riflescopes and his intent to violate the nonexistent embargo.  But Pulungan’s dishonesty is readily explained by his belief that he was violating the wrong law.  Thus, as the Seventh Circuit saw it in United States v. Pulungan (No. 08-3000), the government was really invoking the doctrine of transferred intent: “As the prosecutor sees things, an intent to violate one law is as good as the intent to violate any other.”  The court, per Chief Judge Easterbrook, was unmoved by this use of the transferred intent doctrine and overturned Pulungan’s conviction. 

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